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HULL BOBBERS

Written with Information kindly provided by Ray Bell ( Hull Bobber 1960`s - 1970`s)

Once a vessel had returned to Hull it was up to a team of men to unload the fish hold and convey the catch in prime condition to the fish market these men were called bobbers in Hull and Lumpers in Grimsby. Bobbers worked in gangs of which at anyone time there where upto 60 gangs which could be called upon numbered from 1 - 60.

The Gang / 4 Down below men in the fish hold / 1 Swinger / 2 Barrowmen / 1 Fifth man / 1Winch man / 1 Spareman this would give an overall total of 600 men available to unload the incoming trawlers.

Dependent upon the arrivals of vessels the bobbers would ring up at about 7pm in the evening to find out how many gangs where needed for the unloading of the incoming vessels. All hands, would mean everyone was needed as a lot of vessels where due to land. Otherwise gang 1 - 20 would be called for and such like. If a single vessel came in on the tide gangs such as 21 - 26 may be called for at any time during the night.

Bobbers always started at 2am if possible, dependent upon the tide of which they would be ordered out at tide time. landings where made all through the night and could carry on till early next morning but very seldomly a landing would be made after 9am. In Hull a full trawler would be unloaded in 4 hours where in Grimsby a different method was used which took eight hours. In Grimsby the fish was taken off the vessel by a skid ( like a childs slide ) tipped into a tray and sorted.

In Hull it was upto the fishroom bobbers to size, sort by type of fish and place the fish in a 10 stone basket. The basket was then passed to the swing man who swung the basket ashore to the weighman, the weighman placed the basket on the scales and added or took away to make 10 stone. The fish was then tipped into a aluminium drum called a kit and was rolled to the barrowman who whisked it off, as another landed on the scales and so forth. The only break in this four hour process would come when a basket of ice would come up to be dumped over the side or pound boards which seperated the fish in the hold where sent up for scrubbing.

Bobbers would start off as belowmen working in the fish pounds, I was in gang 19, as a man got older and retired at 65 he became a barrowman on top unless he was needed below, he would be the extra fifth man if we where lucky, and he would flit around the gang helping each man in turn. There where trawlers that had a bunker lid, ( like a manhole ) close to the winch. this would be packed to the top with fish and a special thin basket was used to load the fish into and when full the swinger of the opposite gang would empty it for you. This was because there was no room for the particular gang allocated the bunker lid to work, so the fifth man or a volunteer in his place would stay behind while the remainder of the gang took tea as it was called ( went to the cafe for an hour). The man emptying the bunker would be on his hands and knees on the deck reaching down to the fish, when he could reach no further he would climb into the bunker. This was a very messy slimey job, as at times he would be laid on his back to pass the basket up, the gang working to the left would also assist in emptying this bunker from the side within the fish hold. The two gangs working together to empty the trawlers would take it in turn per day to take tea first in the morning and go to the cafe for a hour. Once you returned from the cafe the fifth man would go, there would also be more room to work as the hold was emptying and there was more room, allowing more men to go into the hold.

Whilst it was never an official request the fishing industry of Hull resolved around the backhander and although never dully asked for it was most expected by some. From Ships Husbands to Bobbers to repairmen and stores. there were many that were running their scams and not only willing to accept this token but insisted upon it.

No matter how good or bad a trip the vessel had made it was all up to the presentation of the catch at the fish market that would determine if the fish would sell for a good price or not. a good catch could be made to look bad and a bad catch made to look good, this was all done by a bobber known as the dollarman. The dollarman was almost always the same man and many life long bobbers never managed to reach this position. The dollarman received 5 shillings per kit for his work and you would persume he automatically placed the prime fish to the top of the kit, but this was not always the case, there where certain dollermen that also expected payment from the mate of the vessel. and if he had approached a mate of the vessel, who had not given the nod and a wink for the unwritten backhander, the kit would be made to look inferior. It was therefore in the best interest of the mate, who`s job it was to oversee the landing of the catch to give such a nod and wink, as if he did not the whole amount received on settling day could be influenced by this backhander. And many a time a good catch has been destined to the fish meal factory or reduced to offal merely by the sheer absence of a five pound note.The skipper and crew who have spent arctic days and nights outwitting the weather and all hazards of trawling in the catching of their prime quarry have been outwitted by the shore staff on our own fish dock.

It was said that the top forman bobber who set all the gangs to work never had to buy cigarettes or chocolate because as he walked up the market and back his pockets where full.

True Account : An Icelandic vessel landed with a full load of assorted flat fish, so many bobbers where alloted to a large wooden tray of which they had been tipped into for sorting into size type and such, doing this particular job you used to get soaked and slimey around the thighs so one bobber went to the back of the market and found a brown dust coat to protect himself a little. There was a well known foreman bobber who wore such a coat and was always instantly recognised by the foreign vessels due to his coat. So as the bobber returned to the tray he was approached by the mate of the Icelandic vessel and asked if he was the boss man, jokingly he replied yes, the mate then thrust three pounds into his hand, on realisation of what was happening the bobber placed it in his pocket. The foreman bobber for the Icelandic vessel that morning was Eric Clark who constantly walked up and down the length of the vessel awaiting his backhander, which had already been paid. For once the bobbers came out on top. 19 Gang Ray Bell

Whilst we must accept these backhanders as part of the way of life and that`s how it was, we must also realise it was not every bobber that was in the position to receive this backhander or wanted to. Also it was not just the dollarman who had his hand in the trawlermans pocket, The forman bobber would also receive this £3 to £5 backhander which was a tax free perk and more than a weeks wage to many men. No matter where you turned money was passing hands in some way or form.

The regular barrowmen of the bobbing gangs paid the stores men their backhander of 2 Shillings and 6d a week each, to ensure the barrows where in good condition and well oiled.But again this was their natural job which entailed the maintenance and upkeep of the barrows. And with two barrowmen per gang with 60 gangs a total of 120 x 2 shillings and sixpence per week. £15 a week divided by two storemen probably exceeding their actual weekly wage..

If a trawler needed a repair that did not stop it sailing, this again would not be carried out unless a backhander was received by the repairmen, my brother was on the Cape Adair for 5 years and at one point the vessel had a faulty gauge which flickered, after repeated attempts to get it repaired, I myself finally did it by adjusting a small screw in a matter of minutes On another occasion I was on one of the trawlers my brother was on after been invited for a cuppa, when an oil pipe burst in the galley and fired, we used 5 fire extinguishers to put it out, of which several did not work, this could have been catastrophic had this happened at sea.

Ships Husband

Each vessel had it`s own ships husband who was resonsible for all the logistical needs of the vessel from new trawl nets to the manning of the vessel, and most where in a prime position to receive the backhander, whether you got a good earning vessel, a good crew, or a ship at all, was much influenced by your generosity to the ships husband. A man could be hired or fired all on the say of a ten bob note, men could be moved to higher earning vessels or demoted to a vessel which was settling in debt by the say of the ship`s husband. The consequence of showing your disapproval of such goings on or not paying the backhander could far outway the loss of a trip or a few quid less in your settling money.

" My brother went to sea and I used to go with him to settle, the ships husband would take him into an office where no one else could go in, so there was no witness to the passing over of a backhander, one time i went with him the husband thought i was a seaman and asked if he could get me a ship. i told him where to put it .

Also one ships husband who got too big for his boots, went to live in the wrong area and the trawler owner spotted him one day (cos he didnt live far away ) explained Robinson, you can`t afford to live in this area on your wage, you must be taking back handers and sacked him. That man used to have a wallet packed two inches thick with notes.

When seamen docked there was always parasites waiting as they came ashore, oh here`s my old mate back, in the hope of carrying their sea bag home, in return for a backhander or a free night on the beer. Here is a true tale, before customs went aboard the trawler as she waited to dock , crewmen would throw a parcel of cigs or tobbacco into the awaiting mob then meet them in a pub to receive it. One skipper fed up of a particular guy did a poo in a parcel, sealed it well and passed it to this guy and arranged to meet him at the local , well he didn`t and for a few trips the guy shouted "ive still got your parcel" the skipper shouted "you can have it ". There is also a certain well known female, now in her mature years who used to board her fathers trawler for a ride through the lock gates and carry the contraband off in her knickers?. ( she still smokes today ).

A Bobbers Lot

You will notice in the picture the use of wooden barrels, these where later changed to the aluminium type we know today, far easier to clean and maintain and no spells. A big problem to the bobbers was when working down the fish hold it was very stagnant stale air many a time you had to come back up for air as you had gone light headed, when the trawler had filled her fish room it was battened down untill she arrived in port. to keep the fish frozen and in prime condition In the early days the old fishermen would batten down some hatches,and in the aisles of the fishroom (known as underfoots) they would light candles to take all the oxygen out of the air therebye reducing bacteria. The coconut mats used on deck to stop the swinger from slipping would be waffted down the fish hold to little effect to try and remove some of the stale air, an answer came with the introduction of an ex RAF aircraft blowers to blow the stale air from the hold, you could see this as a mist expelling from the hatch. The problem of stale air was more prevalent in a half full fish room as the air had been trapped for several days, if the hold was full it was not as bad as most of the air had been expelled..

Eventually fridge pipes where fitted to the roof of the fishroom, but where not bobber friendly, whilst unloading the heat from the bobbers melted the frost on the fridge pipes causing them to drip, consequently the bobber ended up soaking, they requested skippers to turn of the pipes 24 hours before arrival of which some did but others had the F*** You attitude. So on May 11 1964 700 bobbers took an unofficial one day strike to object against this and the lack of provision of clothes drying equipment they had been promised by trawler owners.

Like the wooden kits they also used wooden pound boards which where slotted into channels to divide the fish and keep it in place, these often would swell and have to be hacked out, they where also bad for holding bacteria. These wooden boards where replaced by alluminium ones which did not warp and where much lighter to handle and with the addition of a purpose cleaner, they where far easier to maintain and clean, and more hygenic with the removal of any bacteria. Bulk fish would be packed waist deep shelf fish was one layer of fish on each shelf, these alloy boards would be slotted into battens similar to the rack system of an oven.They would also be slotted into the channels vertically to divide and keep the fish in place as per the wooden boards.

Like the fishermen the bobber when handling the fish came across the same dangers and many septic fingers and hands would result from species such as bream ( known as red army). Even the smallest of pricks by the fish bones could send your finger or hand ballooning and make it extremely painful, which was eased somewhat by the introduction of penicillin injections. My father been a bobber before me once remaind off work for six week after the skin on his hand had started to fret off, and there was always the constant poisoning through the spells from the wooden barrels.

I remember Harold Webber been our fifth man , he was down below one morning in the underfoot digging down on loose fish roes , the boards under his feet gave way and he went down up to his neck in wet roes. He was very lucky another set of boards had been usually put in just the one lot before the bottom or he would have suffocated. Bobbing was very dangerous, if you where sending a pile of pound boards up and the shout " under below" came meant they where falling out of the sling, if you was in an underfoot, where you could go nowhere you flattened yourself at the side, arms above the head hoping one didn`t hit you. In the end we got saftey helmets provided, a George Ellis in gang twenty was hit with a board which put a hole in the helmet, that helmet was later on show in a glass case in the drying room . An Ernie Dickingson wasn`t so lucky a batten board was caught at one end by a basket going up, pulled it out the channel and it hit him between the legs he died a few days later. That tragedy could have been prevented as that board was so far over the line the basket had to take it. But they where too impatient to wait a while, while it was removed . When the swingers who also rigged the trawlers started at 1 pm so the gins was ready on the ship to shore lines, they had to climb the masts in all weathers a Bill Finch was killed one morning on a Kingstons trawler, falling from the rigging. Later they got a device that took the rigging up the mast and there was no need to climbthe mast then, there was talk that the device it had been invented a while, but till some thing happens alls ok normally the loss of some poor soul, typical in those days now the work saftey rules are a lot different.

Bobbers where not allowed to take fish, in Hull , but the lumpers that did the same job in Grimsby was allowed what they called 2 fries a week. Even at easter time we where not allowed it . But a few used to risk it and conceal it hoping they wasn`t caught, you risked 3 months suspension if caught , then if a repeat the sack. But many took the risk, and some had special made pockets in their clothing . No names but one winch man used to have a mack with pockets in the back
he used to wait while the cops back was turned then off up Liverpool St bridge, Iwatched him one morning as he went you could see the shape of the fishlike pattern all up the back of his mack , in the end he did get caught but a lotof the men had a good run. One chap jumped into the dock one morning when he was getting stopped and took his jacket off and let it go, he had to be taken to Hull Royal to have his stomach washed out on account of the filthy water he had swallowed. In the meantime the crafty cops took the jacket to his home and asked his wife if it belonged to her husband, she was unsure I believe so that saved him (recalling i think his name was Harry Burton. To me it was never worth the hassle you could buy fish on the x market . If we worked on a foriegn vessle (they was always called SCROBS by the bobbers, or a snibby the skipper would give the men working on the trawler all a fish each, but to take a halibut was a no no. One big Icelandic ship that used to come in regular was Edgar Scalagrimston i think i`ve spelt it correct, thats a name thats stuck in my mind, to reach the fish room you went down the hollow forward mast, a passage each side of her you could walk down and big fan blast freezer fans used to be blowing till we started to land it. Also the ice they used was natural ice out of the mountains a devil to get rid of because as you filled the basket, it was like soap flakes, that fine so you had to be quick, shovel some in and hit it with the back of a shovel to solidify it, but they certainly knew how to put fish away and each one had a big hook in its mouth they just cut the line off . The Edgar Scalagrimston was a mother ship which was fed by smaller long line vessels.

When the bobbers went for their break they usualy went to the canteen on the x market , but many of the men brought packup and only wanted a mug of tea , so the watchman on a particular trawler would make a big kettle of tea at six pence a mug .The bobbers would make their way to the galley which would be dimly lit with an oil lamp or a couple of candles, as the generator was not running and ship to shore only lit the fish room . A few of us had gone to a trawler and where in the galley waiting as the watchman poured the tea into a row of mugs. All of a sudden there was a scattering of bobbers as they made for the exit, whats up whats up ?, it had been noticed that as the watchman was pouring the tea, he had an uncontrolled drible of slavia from his mouth and it was adding to the tea ( sorry but i can only remember this incident but not the vessels name . Another watchman was serving mugs of chicken soup he had made of which he did a few times untill they found out where the chickens came from . He used to go across to the other side of the fish dock to what was called manure yard ( fish meal co) all the offal from the chicken factories used to go there and among the offal used to be a few chickens that had been thrown out for some reason. that scam came to an unduly end . I never had any myself thank goodness .

As previously mentioned we requested drying facilities for our clothing, and after years of taking our smelly fish clothes home, the old bobbers canteen was closed and converted into a drying room. They refurbished the x market canteen which was then very good, it was rare for bobbers to go to breakfast unless you had been landing all night and it was about 8.30am, the gangs would go off in turn to the canteen, which was situated on the top floor and accessed by some very wide concrete steps. One particular morning bobbers lined the steps from top to bottom as they waited to get into the canteen, the morning delivery man appeared as usuall, carring his tray of cakes on his head, he proceeded up the stairs past the bobbers but on arrival at the top there was not a cake left, of course the dock police where called but nothing could be done as there was no evidence to prove it. Another time we had a union meeting in the canteen and we where packed in like sardines, when this bloke gave me a packet of park drive cigs, oh thanks ? I bewilderingly retorted, I later found out that hidden by the crowd, a bobbers hook was used to prise open the cig machines doors, again usleless calling the law. The canteen then had one of the first one armed bandits, tic tac toe, some smart arse discovered that if you rocked it side to side you could pull the arm for free,.this happened for 2 mornings until a big chain was put around it tight to a pillar it stood against .Some of the bobbers where right rogues but the majority where ok and if it wasn`t nailed down it was gone.

Another little tale may be of interest there used to be dock a policeman called Mendip . he was always on the lookout for anyone taking fish (even though him and his partners got plenty ) One morning he wanted to look in a bobbers van as he was going to go off the dock, he said " I want to see in the back of your van " so do I the bobber replied but iv`e dropped my keys, he then started pacing about pretending to look for them, all of a sudden he shot to the van started it up and was off Mendip ran along side the van and grabbed at a side mirror but slipped and got caught and dragged breaking his arm as he fell, the bobber fled
Later the bobber was charged with the offence but stated he wasn`t to know Mendip was caught at the passenger side as he was looking where he was going and did not even hear a shout. We all thought they would throw the book at him, but he got found not guilty. A few other bobbers knew his antics and wished he would get caught he was so brazen and cheeky at taking fish . also on the dock then horses where still in use and one called phyliss had a funny trait, anyone shouting phyliss your a b***** , would make the horse jump like hell back feet first, some teasers often shouted to it just to see its antics. The chap who drove it used to play hell to me, I thought it a rotten thing to do but then it amused some.

I remember the Icelandic Trawlers we used to unload, the crew used to like their drink and such, one time the Edgar Scalagrimston the Icelandic vessel came into
Hull during the day to land at 2 am, some of the crew went to the local pub. As we was landing her' two young women went aboard, a bit later the dock police went aboard and cleared them off the dock to yells and comments from the bobbers . how did they get by the police box in the first place, they used to lay down on the taxis floor, they where known to rip the seamen off especially when they were half drunk, but they where as hard as nails, the girls i mean, they just laughed at the comments as they left I wont repeat those and let you guess. Another Icelandic trawler the crew got drunk and started the steam winch and there was such a scatter off the deck, because the ship to shore line rigging aft of the trawler that held the gins up (crane-lifting the baskets) the wire rope was tied around the winch barrels. Of course this started to pull on the forard mast till it bent. i think the crewman was arrested. On another Icelandic trawler they had a young lad on it, one of the drunken crew hit him right in the mouth and he had to go to hospital this crewman was also arrested. Another time one of them threw the watchmans radio and lunch into the dock, he had to renew the radio and compensate the watchman, there was some big guys in the icelandic crews one drunk threatened me one morning I showed him my bobbers hook , and I would have used it as well, he turned away thank goodness .Tthey would ask us at times if we had any whisky or rum we could have made a good profit at times if you had a bottle on you, I never recall seeing one been sold though.